How has America gotten into such trouble in every way conceivable? We ignore our astounding national debt, urban violence, race relations, women’s reproductive rights, free speech, gun rights, income inequality…the polarization is endless. What I’m trying to fathom is our general reluctance or inability to handle these complex problem. I have a clue: American exceptionalism. I find it one of the most dangerously misleading phrases in our culture Yes, our country does some things extremely well, better than the rest of the world, and Americans can be incredibly kind and generous. But our exceptionalism has become a broad brush for championing the good while ignoring the bad, a shield to hide behind when our country is criticized for its narcissism, indifference and ignorance. We rationalize that critical problems like climate change can’t be easily solved so why make the effort? "The technology will show up when it’s needed. My life is busy enough,” a friend of mine says.
We wallow in our exceptionalism, but we don’t back it up by tackling the tough stuff that requires sacrifice and stamina. Many of us don’t like “hard.” We definite “living in the moment” as something wonderful and In many ways the goal is admirable. Yet when I think about slogans with honest roots, I prefer “living for the future.” In the meantime, we are the world’s biggest back slappers. We love to congratulate ourselves, give out participant trophies, and exult in our pursuit of happiness. Like a lost tribe of dreamers, the path marked “most difficult” has little interest for us. I propose we observe a moratorium on the phrase “American exceptionalism.” If we’re going to embark on a positive future for all, how about “American wisdom.”
As a curious citizen, I sometimes ask random people how they feel about discussing their political views. Seriously. I ask them NOT to tell me their own leanings. Most won’t engage me, but some do.
I’ve put quotes around their answers; their exact wording might be slightly different, yet not in substance.
1. Male. White. Professional. “I never talk politics, even with good friends, unless I already know they agree ninety to one hundred percent with my own thinking. Otherwise you easily lose clients as well as friends."
2. Male. White. Gig economy. “I like to engage my Uber fares with any and all subjects, including politics, but they have to bring up the subject first. Too many people don’t want the stress of even thinking about politics. Others don’t seem to think about anything else."
3. Female. Latino. Waitress. “I’ve been watching the George Loyd riots on television. Protestors, yes, looters, no way. I feel our country has to change from within, at the ballot box. I intend to vote this year."
4. Female. White. High school teacher. “It’s very hard to speak about politics in the classroom, even if you’re teaching civics or history. Parents worry, ridiculously, that they’re kids are getting brain-washed. There is so much fear attached to one’s opinion being attacked. Politics and religion are the sacred cows. Why will it ever change?"
5. Female. Boomer. Retired. “Hard not to feel pessimistic after decades of polarization and how it touches everything. This all started with after 9/11, the polarization, in my opinion. I still vote because I care about my country.”
6. Male. Latino. Car mechanic. “I think we stopped being a democracy a long time ago. If voter turnout, no matter at what level, rarely exceeds 50%, you’re getting the message you don’t count, and that special interests and money control everything. Privileged white people are sometimes the biggest racists I know. But some are brothers-in-arms."
7. Female. Black. Professional. “We need a grass roots revolution. Sanders and Warren almost pulled it off. Racism needs to be outlawed at the federal level. It’s a hate crime.”
8. Female. White. High school student. “My friends are too busy or cynical to care about the political process. I’m an optimist. When things get really bad, as they are, I believe that good is around the corner. History cycles back and forth between good and evil.”
9. Male. Latino. Professional. “You have to walk on egg shells when expressing a strong political opinion. You don’t want to offend anyone. Yet, if you don’t have convictions, and express them, you’re a coward."
10. Female. Mixed race. Gig economy. “I let the candidates do the political talking. I listen and discuss at my church. I try to separate the ego-driven from those who genuinely care about issues and people in need. At my church there’s a lot of talk of candidate who follow religious doctrine. That shouldn’t be the top priority for voting."
Building a character arc should be done over the span of the novel. Just like it’s a writing sin to have an information plot dump in the first chapter of your book, likewise your characters shouldn’t reveal themselves right away. One aspect at a time—brought out by action rather than exposition—keeps the reader engaged.
Most writers are more comfortable delineating one sex (or gender) over another, which often dictates their main characters and the genre a writer chooses. You can still be a male and write fantasy romances, or a female skilled at describing war scenes, but whatever your strength, play to it.
Very few writers do everything well. The best write about what they know, and their characters evoke passion, empathy or curiosity in a reader.
Great characters, to enhance their arc, should have a fourth or fifth gear that seems to come out of nowhere. For example, villains can turn into heroes with an act of kindness that we would never have anticipated, yet when we read the novel closely, we realize that the seed of kindness was planted by the writer from the beginning. Similarly, characters we start off admiring suddenly disappoint us when they hurt someone they love. If they don’t realize what they’ve done, figuring out the “why” makes them even more interesting. Well-conceived characters can help with plot troubles, too, if the writer wakes one morning and isn’t sure where his or her story is going (happens to most of us). Instead of robbing a bank, for example, your destitute character decides to give away his last fifty dollars to a stranger. The wife who has been cheated on, instead of taking revenge on her husband, is filled with insights about her father. A deeply-felt, richly-imagined character is your writing buddy, your co-conspirator, and their importance to the final product can’t be overstated.
There may be a thousand and one books on how to write a novel, filled with sound observations, but when it comes to creating and developing characters, many emphasize the mechanical over the intuitive. Over decades, here’s what I’ve painstakingly learned about making your characters authentic, original and memorable.
Stay tuned for the next post!
Most writers begin the writing process by working on plot. While plot is obviously important, I also like to know everything possible about my main characters, even if I never use many of their details in the novels. Whether you take voluminous notes about them, or talk out loud to them (and they talk back to you), it’s rarely enough. You need to imagine what they would do off the page, i.e., if they had to attend your Uncle George’s July fourth barbecue, or somehow landed in another novel altogether. Make them your best friends or worst enemies. Whether they come from your imagination or real life (or a combination thereof), you should be inside your characters a few hours every day—before you write a single word. Think of method acting. Characters aren’t simply pawns in a plot—they transcend it. They are what you remember long after the plot is often forgotten.
I hope readers of the novel can relate to [the characters'] struggles and impulsive judgments, even when we react by thinking, “no, please don’t do that!” Their lives twist and turn like ours, and realistically not everything ends up tied in ribbons. But life lessons are real.
I try to challenge myself as a novelist by communicating what I understand the world to be. I like reading other writers who storytell a different vision than mine, as their narrative is as unique to them as mine is to me. Everything is about a point of view, realized through three-dimensional characters embedded, hopefully, in a compelling and memorable plot.
In Once Upon a Lie, a story of the Eighties, my two principal characters seem as different as the Americas they live in—one in a white and privileged enclave in Los Angeles, the other a Texas town with walls to climb if you’re poor and black and have the ambition and talent to escape. Their paths cross and a relationship as complex as their differences begins to bloom. Jaleel and Alexandra (“Alex”) deal with societal problem as well as the personal ones they make for themselves. I hope readers of the novel can relate to their struggles and impulsive judgments, even when we react by thinking, “no, please don’t do that!” Their lives twist and turn like ours, and realistically not everything ends up tied in ribbons. But life lessons are real. Jaleel and Alex even have their own Facebook pages, their interweaving stories continuing in the present, picking up where the book leaves off.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.